New Mexico has moved up the ranks when it comes to childhood poverty rates, according to new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Well, kind of.
In 2016, the state was ranked worst in the nation, with about 30 percent of children having experienced poverty in a 12-month period, census data show.
According to data released Thursday, that estimate has dropped slightly to around 27 percent in 2017.
That means New Mexico is no longer in last place where childhood poverty is concerned. The state actually jumped to the second-worst state in the nation, conceding last place to Louisiana.
Poverty levels for children under 5 dropped even more significantly, from 36.2 percent statewide in 2016 to 28.9 percent in 2017, census data show.
The numbers, while encouraging, are not necessarily a comprehensive look at childhood poverty, says Sharon Kayne, communications director for child advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children.
Kayne pointed out that the poverty line referenced by these statistics is drastically low, around $20,000 a year for a family of three and about $25,000 for a family of four.
So, even though the official count holds that 30 percent of New Mexico’s children are living in poverty, Kayne said the percentage of children who struggle with poverty-induced stress on a day-to-day basis is certainly higher.
“When we look at families that are up to 200 percent of the poverty level … about half our kids are living in families that are just barely making it,” she said. “That beats living at 100 percent of the poverty level or below, but it’s not the optimal situation for healthy growth and development of our kids.”
Childhood well-being is dependent on family well-being, Kayne pointed out, and the most recent census data show that, on a financial level, New Mexico’s families are still faring poorly compared to other states.
An annual Kids Count data set released earlier this year ranked New Mexico as the worst state for child well-being, based on a number of factors including education, economics and health.
And the state’s overall poverty level didn’t budge this year, census data show. In 2016, the Census Bureau estimated about 19.8 percent of New Mexicans lived below the federal poverty line. In 2017, that estimate was 19.7 percent.
New Mexico’s poverty rate has hovered around the second highest in the nation since around 2010, according to census data.
In 2017, New Mexico’s poverty rate tied with Louisiana’s for second worst in the nation, outranked only by repeat titleholder Mississippi.
Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, thinks the way out of this poverty slump is improving education for the state’s students.
“It’s all cyclical,” García said.
“If you have good educational outcomes, you tend to attract industry to your state; it’s an economic driver,” she said. “… And if you have a better economy, people are employed, you have less children in poverty, you break that cycle.”
While stressors of poverty — from hunger to homelessness — can have a direct impact on a student’s ability to learn, García said poverty is “not an excuse” for low performance.
The government, the community and schools all need to work together to help mitigate the effects of poverty and improve education outcomes, García said, to make sure New Mexico children are getting a fair shot at success.
The drastic drop in the poverty rate for children under 5 years old — a change of more than 20 percent — caught the staff of Voices for Children a bit by surprise, Kayne said.
“Sometimes there’s a big change in numbers and we know the reason — there’s been a major policy change or a huge economic change,” she said. “… But for something like this, there’s nothing that I know of we can point to that we can say is a huge factor.”
In general, younger children are more likely to live in poverty, Kayne said, adding that poverty during the toddler years can be most detrimental to a child’s health. Because their brains are developing rapidly during this time, she said, issues like poor nutrition can take a bigger toll.
So the decline in the poverty rate for young children is a good sign for the state.
“It’s still much higher than we’d like it to be,” Kayne said, “but it’s now almost on par with overall child poverty, which is good.”